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When Walt Disney Met Igor Stravinsky

Date: Sep 25, 2017

Penguin Rep's comedy about making art explores some serious themes


Disney's 1940 movie Fantasia is widely considered a cinematic masterpiece. In addition to being one of those classics parents love sharing with their young children, it's ranked No. 5. on the American Film Institute's Top 10 Animated Movies list. Yet Fantasia was not an immediate sensation. In fact, both its creation and initial release were fraught with disagreement and disappointment. Playwright Frederick Stroppel uses the film's turbulent history as the backdrop for his comic two-hander Small World presented by Penguin Rep Theatre at 59E59 Theaters.

Instead of Mickey Mouse setting off sparks as in the film, the fireworks in Small World come from several charged meetings between American mogul Walt Disney (Mark Shanahan) and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (Stephen D'Ambrose) about the usage of the latter's orchestral work The Rite of Spring in Fantasia. At first they clash about practical matters such as the piece accompanying a segment about dinosaurs. (Stravinsky's not a fan.) But after the film turns out to be a flop, their conflict expands to more philosophical concerns about what defines artistic success, failure, and selling out.

"When you have two people at this level of artistic vision, how do they work together?" asks director Joe Brancato, who also helmed the show's 2015 world premiere at Penguin Rep in Stony Point, NY. Though these two real-life titans did meet, Stroppel's script is cleverly subtitled "a fantasia," and abandons factual accuracy in favor of a witty imagined dialogue about how these two geniuses championed their individual visions.


"Small World has a huge scope in terms of how artists collaborate in a healthy way," says Brancato. "These were men from totally different parts of the world and years apart from each other. How do you hold on to your ideas? This play makes us stop and think about that in an entertaining way."

Brancato hopes Small World will pique the audience's interest in the giants at its center. "I hope the show stirs the gray matter in terms of who these people were," he says. "That people will leave and want to listen to more of Stravinsky's work and gain further insight into what Disney was about. Disney was a wunderkind, but he also struggled with failure with Fantasia.

Christina Watanabe, Small World's lighting designer, adds that the play's exploration of the artistic process is inspiring for everyone involved. "It's about what is it to be a creative force," she says. "I am inspired by these two giants. The play asks 'What is art? What is collaboration?' And we're working on our own story right as we tell theirs. It refreshed my own ideas. Walt Disney's and Igor Stravinsky's passion to create and be heard reinforced why I do what I do."


Doug Strassler is a writer and critic based in New York City. He contributes regularly to TDF Stages.

Top image: Stephen D'Ambrose and Mark Shanahan in Small World. Photos by Carol Rosegg.

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